As the sun shines brightly in the cloudless sky, the central market in north Kashmir’s Sopore area swells with people and traffic. The warm, humid air is suffused with sour and rancid odour, and the honks from the umpteen vehicles blow unfailingly. A few curves ahead of the congested bus stand, Ghulam Hassan, seventyish, is dozing off on his Tonga, traditional horse-carts, decorated with kaleidoscopic colours. Hassan is holding a radio set in his hand close enough to his ears, which resounds of an old Bollywood track of Kishore Kumar at a deafening volume.
Zinadi ek Safar hai suhana,
Yahan kal kya ho kisnai jana
(Life is a pleasant journey,
Who knows what will happen tomorrow), the radio echoes.
Hassan’s fellow comrades (a couple), are barely visible in the smoke from the hookah they are puffing on the trot. Hassan and his fellas have ferried thousands of passengers and carried tons of load over the past few decades, using their Tonga.
“We have grown up in this market. Even our horses recognize every nook and corner of the town; our horses used to rule the roads. While modern transportation didn’t exist, we made life easier for commoners. But now nobody needs us,” Hassan says while rubbing his jaded eyes.
Belonging to a family of Tonga Riders, Hassan’s brush with Tonga riding happened at an early age.
“A number of my family members were entrenched to Tonga. My father was a famous Tonga rider of Sopore town; he would gallop his horse through the bumpy roads. I, as a kid used to dream of riding a horse like him. I started riding the horse at the age of 16 and got tickled to death with every gallop. Initially, I rode the horse for the thrill but soon I realized the importance of financial stability in life and like my forefathers, I took it as a profession,” Hassan recalls.
“With countless chauffeurs throughout the town, I along with other Tonga riders made a good fortune but as various new transportation means hit the roads, we suffered immensely,” Hassan added.
Being a tradition in Ghulam Hassan’s family, he now represents the last generation of Tonga riders in his family. “I haven’t taught my children Tonga riding because there is no significance left in it,” Hassan said.
Once used to be the only mode of transportation, Tonga operated throughout the valley ferrying the passengers and loads from one place to another. Sopore along with few other towns in North Kashmir are the only places left in the valley, where one gets a rare sight of Tonga-wallas. As the new means of transport took over Tonga, the space for Tongas shrank throughout the valley at a considerable rate hence forcing Tonga- riders to switch over to other vocations. Soon, both Tonga and its drivers became obsolete.
Ten kilometres away from Sopore town, Ghulam Mohammad Lone, 80, recently said adieu to his horse, who served him for years. “I plied my horse through the streets of my village for decades. While motor transport was yet to reach our part of the world, I helped many pregnant ladies reach hospital and expedited the meeting of loved ones.
“Now, I’ve grown old, so has my horse. My children insisted on selling the horse, I obliged and sold it off but the day he left, I cried as I lost my companion who was with me through every thick and thin. Had Tonga been still relevant, I would have never sold it. I insisted my children to learn Tonga riding but being a witness of the meagre amount I earned from it, they refused,” he said with a heavy voice.
The district administration of Baramulla just a few years back, in a witting attempt, coaxed the Tonga-wallas to shun the Tongas and drive autos. The Tongas were replaced by three-wheelers by the authorities citing the reasons of creating nuisance of traffic jams due to slow speed of Tongas, foul smell emanating from the muck of the horses on roads. But like Ghulam Hassan, many Tonga riders are resisting the pressure of modernization and continue to make their livelihood from the Tongas they grew up commuting with.